USWNT Commentary: Pressure Makes Us….shortsighted
Nike’s advertising campaign for the U.S. Women’s National Team prior to the 2011 World Cup was based on the phrase “Pressure Makes Us.” It was an apt ad slogan, as it is clear that pressure and expectations have had a massive impact on the USWNT – and it just might be squeezing the life out of the current team.
Women’s soccer reached a fever pitch in this country in 1999 when 13.5 million people watched the U.S. triumph over China after penalty kicks to win the World Cup, bringing the sport to heights never before reached.
Ever since that moment the sport hasn’t quite matched that peak, and every major tournament is seen as an avenue to get back to those glory days. The expectations for the USWNT are simple: perfection. Win every game, sign every autograph, bring home gold (both World Cup and Olympics, please).
The constant and unwavering pressure for so-called flawless performances has created an environment where no true change or evolution is possible.
In the months leading up to a major event most teams will put an end to experimenting, lock in their starting XI, and focus entirely on their next set of fixtures. When every game is considered a must-win, that “settle down” mentality is no longer confined to the few months before a tournament – it becomes the daily operating procedure of the program.
For the USWNT, this standard operating procedure settled in as the team basked in the glory of the 1999 World Cup victory. Sure, there were setbacks, and the team hasn’t actually won a World Cup since 1999, but the team has had plenty of success during that period which reinforced a culture opposed to experimentation and evolution.
In the period since the 1999 World Cup, the U.S. has two bronzes and a silver medal from the WWC as well as one silver and three gold medals from the Olympics. The team also spent seven years as the No. 1-ranked team according to FIFA, from 2007 to 2014.
With that type of success, why change anything? That record is incredible.
What is hidden within those results is a more recent trend of increasing competition at the highest level of women’s soccer. The gulf between the U.S. and other top programs has been shrinking, and the results of the past four years demonstrate that.
In the semifinals of the 2003 Women’s World Cup, Germany dominated the U.S. in Portland, winning 3-0 and sending the team to face Canada in the third-place match, which the U.S. won 3-1. The USWNT redeemed themselves in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, winning the gold-medal match over Brazil 2-1. Meanwhile, reigning World Cup champion Germany finished with a bronze medal.
In 2007 the U.S. lost in humiliating fashion to Brazil in the semifinals, falling 4-0 as the Hope Solo–Brianna Scurry goalkeeping controversy erupted, before advancing to the third-place match against Norway, where the team cruised to a 4-1 victory. The next summer the team went from tumult and humiliation to glory as they won the 2008 Olympic gold medal.
The 2011 World Cup once more propelled the team into the national consciousness, but that tremendous run was nearly a disaster twice. First, the Americans had to beat Italy in a continental playoff just to gain a spot in the tournament. Second, the electric quarterfinal clash with Brazil nearly resulted in their earliest exit ever from the World Cup.
The U.S. eventually lost in the final to Japan, a gripping affair decided by penalty-kick shootout. Once again, the USWNT would find redemption the next summer at the Olympics, bringing home the gold medal in London.
The cyclical World Cup disappointment and subsequent Olympic elation has been happening for the past 12 years. While the US haven’t won a World Cup in 16 years, the almost immediate success after each of those failures have reinforced the traditional U.S. approach to international soccer success: a winning mentality and unmatched physical presence.
The recent coaching change from Tom Sermanni to Jill Ellis illustrates clearly the dangerous calculus of any USWNT head coach, who must juggle between introducing new players and systems, while also seeking a nearly perfect record.
Sermanni was fired in April 2014 shortly after a poor showing at the Algarve Cup, marked by a draw with reigning World Cup champs Japan, a loss to Sweden (ranked sixth in the world at that time), and another loss to Denmark.
During his tenure Sermanni brought up several young players who now appear to be mainstays in the pool, including Crystal Dunn, Julie Johnston, and Morgan Brian. He called in other young players performing well in the NWSL, abroad, or in college including Sarah Hagen, Erika Tymrak, and Sarah Killion.
Another interesting young player who flourished under Sermanni? Sydney Leroux, who had never started a match before Sermanni’s arrival.
Once Ellis took over, there was an interesting change in direction which included a new 4-3-3 formation, but generally included a familiar set of well-established players. Team veterans Christie Rampone and Abby Wambach were regulars in the starting XI, while Lauren Holiday was moved into deep midfield to fulfill the No. 6 role.
Results of the new system have been mixed. The team did well against France in the summer, blasted their CONCACAF rivals, sans Canada, in the fall, and then struggled in their December tournament in Brazil, tying China, losing to Brazil and then gutting out a tie in a rematch with the host nation in the final.
Though the 4-3-3 formation would appear to be a more possession-oriented system than the trusty American 4-4-2, the results on the pitch reveal that the signature American long-ball tactic is still a major part of the game plan. Meanwhile, rivals in France, Germany, Japan, appear to to be evolving technically, tactically and physically.
The lack of meaningful change or evolution in the USWNT program in recent years is frustrating, but it is also entirely understandable. When the expectation is perfection and the current approach has secured amazing successes, including three Olympic gold medals, there is no margin for change because there is no margin for error.